Friday, December 09, 2011

Bedtime Story

My first floor windows on the east side of my house had an excellent view of the first floor windows on the west side of my neighbor's house. The view was so complete that, while I sat in my living room in my reading chair by the east window, I could yawn and stretch my left arm and reach into his living room and trade books. If only for the window screens. The same was true on the west side but I did not care for her cheap romance novels.
One brilliant and wrathfully hot Wednesday morning, just shy of noon, I was sitting in the shade cheerfully swatting a breed of imported flies when Henry, my neighbor to the east, came down the sidewalk toward my patch of lawn carrying a box. Henry walked his way around town, having no car or license. He said that he couldn't drive because he was myopic, but his wife said that he was gloomy. He was whistling again. My ears stood straight up like a dog's. I rose in my chair. "Stop it, will you?" He glanced my way. He was in the third bar of some byzantine, baroque fugue in descending minor that was elevating my blood pressure. "I said stop it. Can't you find something else to do with that excess windage and fattened tongue besides misinterpret Vituperatio or Balooney or Paparazzi or whomever it is you mock?"
He stopped right in the arc of the lawn sprinkler. "I whistle when I am tense. I've got to shed some excess nerves." The sprinkler swept across his back. "Yow - cold!" He jumped aside.
"Well shed them in the fall so they can blow down to Alabama with the rest of the litter on my lawn." I nearly stood up to impress, but I was really hoping that he would pass along too quickly for me to rise. "Anyhow, what's the angst about now?" Never a day passed without his complaint about his nerves.
He looked at me sideways. "Job applications." He had been unemployed for about two years and was looking for work.
I relaxed in the chair. "Any leads?" I looked down at the ants crawling across the driveway that sizzled in the hot sun, tar oozing from the cracks like black summer sweat. The ants would make it about an arm's length into the driveway and then overheat and swell and turn on their backs and then die, legs outstretched. And many of the dead were rescue teams sent to recover the remains of the first casualties. Carcasses piled up. Maybe this was a plan; they would use the dead as bridges to the netherworld on the other side of the driveway where all wood was soggy with rot and the aphids were plump. I looked across the shimmering asphalt and saw ants on the other side working their way toward this side in the same fashion. I wondered what it must have felt like to be on a suicide mission to save another suicide mission that is on a mission to save you.
He shrugged again. "Well, I figure with all my experience applying for jobs, I could get a job looking at applications for job openings. They call it a Personnel Director."
I thought of Russian Nesting Dolls eating one another.
He saw my blank look. "I was interviewed for an opening in personnel at the airport today."
I raised my eyebrows. He looked away. "How did it go?"
He started whistling.
"Hey - "
"Sorry. I was relaxing." He looked at the box of papers. "They tested me today. They had me review applications for job openings for pilots." He paused and looked down and slowly shook his head. "I don't know. I don't get it."
"Get what?" I swatted at a fly that landed on my arm. It was about as big as a half dollar, glittering blue and green like a Vegas hotel with a rack of antennae that would have made a trophy elk run in fear.
He shook the box. "All the applicants were schoolchildren, from Mrs. William's second grade class. Some of the applications just had pictures drawn in crayon. Food stains. Ripped. Crumpled. I don't get it."
I smiled. "Were they qualified?"
His face curled slightly. "That's what I don't get. I was told that they were serious candidates." There he stood, sweating, dehydrating in the hot white sun, losing weight, height and volume, holding a box of crayon drawings of stick men created by the brightest leaders of tomorrow, and tomorrow would begin in precisely 12 hours, coincidentally, the very moment when our world would be at its darkest.
I began to whistle.
Henry tipped his head to the side. "You sound myopic."
I got up and went into the house.
At about ten at night - it must have been ten o'clock because the news was on television and panels of pale men with swollen necks and carnivorous women with dilated pupils dressed in business suits were championing in great detail personal versions of a future reality in ever increasing volume and cacophony. Like a cage full of parrots. About ten at night I sat down to watch the news.
Henry looked out his window into my window. He was watching the same program, or maybe he wasn't because the background colors were different. "I am watching an action movie."
"No you aren't. It's the news."
He looked at his television. "Nah, it's an action movie. You're wrong."
"No, you are wrong."
"It has to be. At the end of this there is always a loud explosion and bodies fly all over the place and the next day I go see the sequel and I see the same set of actors scrubbed and cleaned and powdered do it all over again."
I picked up a book on the end table and tried to read but I forgot that the pages went from left to right and besides, I read it several years earlier. It was a science fiction novel from the 1950's entitled The Eyestorm, about a future that is now long past, one where everyone drives a flying car, motivational music is omnipresent, the moon is cultivated, communities are arranged vertically, and the state wages war against every second thought. Well, I had misgivings about the book when I opened it, but I was afraid to put it down and finished it in a few hours. Afterward, I closed the blinds on the windows.
"See?" Henry pointed at the screen and there was chaos and shouting and the camera cut away to a commercial. "See?"
On the west side of the house I could hear the other neighbor reading a bedtime story to her daughter. I think she read it every Wednesday evening, a book called The Big Red Airplane. The heroine, a young girl named Darcy, takes the controls of a big red airplane when the pilot oversleeps and she flies it around the world so many times that they go forward in time and find a civilization where everyone is literate and animals have rights and houses talk to you and, sure enough, they have flying cars, and the President calls on Darcy to save the city from a family of angry asteroids by sending the asteroids back in time so they miss the earth. This reminds me why I sit on the east side of the house. I had half-a-mind to tell that daughter the real story, and I made sure I let her mother know that I had half-a-mind - and she agreed - and I was fully determined to tell her that the civilization that Darcy saved went on to revoke the rights of animals so that they could use them to fuel their flying cars and all the people could read alright, but became immersed in abject sloth and bliss and their ability to write and create atrophied - but this condition didn't last long because their immune systems were no match for the mutant bacteria that were out-gassing from the genetics laboratories. Besides, the President was the one that sent the asteroids so he could declare a State of Emergency and force a social contract whereby the citizens would give up their inalienable rights in exchange for virtual reality, libations, and the pursuit of pleasure. Darcy was just a pawn and died in prison with hundreds of other children held for their charming, little beliefs.
That was about three years ago. She only recently unlocked her first floor window and opened the drapes.
Henry was still watching the news. He looked over. "You know, these men and women on this show look like they are aware and sentient and lucid. One would imagine they had a conscience."
"So?" I looked at the newspaper. A headline read, "Scientists Discover Royal Family Is Genetically Identical to Sausage Links".
Henry continued. "Really, they all use abstract terms and assert their moral certitude. It's a good movie."
"Would you quit calling it a movie! It's not a show, it's a discussion, experts finding solutions."
"That's a good movie." Henry leaned back in his chair and took a swig of water. "I am cheering for the fat fellow on the left there. See him? He can really act. I am almost convinced he really believes he has solutions."
I looked past him at the television. It was a different channel, but they had the same position players, one aging wise man, a blonde woman with sharp eyebrows, a dark-eyed man with a cherubic face, smart haircut, dark hair clipped above the ears and parted on the side. Another puffy, arteriosclerotic man with thick jowls and bulging eyes who sweated and lost his temper first. Once he lost it, the others followed. That was the explosive climax. I think I saw a headline go across the screen about an asteroid.
Henry tapped on the window screen. "Hey. Lincoln said that the legitimate object of a government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."
He said it too fast for me to catch it all. "What?"
He watched the experts shouting above each other. "I am saying that we need more than single-issue Messiahs. I mean, we have five-thousand and seventy-nine critical issues we need to solve simultaneously. One for every man, woman, and child on earth and all these folks can do is shout simultaneously."
I still had trouble hearing him over the din.
He placed his drink on the end table. Moths hit the screens between us. "Unfortunately, Lincoln had to bathe and eat and take naps and comfort his wife and retrieve the keys he misplaced in the icebox and hang out with his relatives when they brought 'possum from Illinois and then go sleep for eight or ten hours and then miss an appointment with the ambassador to Spain because he forgot about it and his teeth were aching oh-so-badly that he had to put down more corn whiskey than he was accustomed to and that was where the Vice President would step in, if only they could wake him up from his slumber after being up all night playing poker with the Speaker of the House and the Secretary of State. They say he lost his shirt and redistricting in Vermont."
The television switched to breaking news from somewhere. Headlines and war scenes appeared. "Peace Marchers Set Fire to Nursing Home."
Henry looked at me. "Are you listening, bud?" I gave a vague shrug. "Think about it: What was Gandhi's policy on health care? What did MLK have to say about child slavery? What did Cyrus the Great think about drug resistant pathogens? And Peter the Great, I wonder what his platform was on groundwater depletion? I suppose that man had the time to come up with something." He looked back at the television. "Yeah, great show."
"Maybe it is, but maybe they are lost in the character and really are what they appear to be."
"For enough money, anyone will be what they are not. These people make a living convincing people they are someone other than themselves." He leaned back and ran his fingers through his hair. "Nah. They will sort things out when they hand out the Emmy Awards." He pointed at the screen. "Well for the love of Pete..." A headline appeared: "Aurora Borealis More Active Around Pet Cemeteries."
Before I could think I blurted, "I believe that!" I backed into my chair. "I mean, I think I have seen that happen in Rosemont, along Highway 63." I looked at the end table. Seven dead flies were on the table. One was caught in the glass housing around the lamp and was burning alive.
"And the show goes on." Henry turned off the television. "I mean, this Machiavellian landscape is overpopulated with also-rans, thugs, megalomaniacs, sycophants, honyokers, and ruffians, many of which are engaged in such villainous acts of compulsive-destructive behavior that new problems at created at such a rate that they outstrip the ability of all the genetic laboratories in the earth to produce cloned Gandhi-like figures in numbers equal to the task."
I raised my hand. "But maybe they could appear to be up to the task. That would at least create security, right?"
I don't think he heard me or maybe he did. Moths swirled in the lamplight like snow. He continued, "Let's be fair. Maybe one of these leaders could multitask. So let's ask, What was Julius Caesar's policy on alternative fuels, nuclear waste, habitat destruction, species extinction, petroleum based farming, corporate greed, internet pornography, school violence, the drug trade, wetland loss, factory farms, consumerism, hyperinflation, quantitative easing, landfill seepage, racism, and the weapons trade? Oh, and I forgot, failing infrastructure. I want to see his mission statement too. By tomorrow at the end of the business day. Four copies please. And it had better make sense. No gimmicks. Consistent, integrated, no contradictions, comprehensive and fully funded. Leave it on my desk."
I laughed. "Don't bet on it. He probably has to take a powder and rehearse his lines."
He nodded. "Yeah, but I hear he has a great smile and a full head of hair."
I sighed and sunk back into my chair, relaxed. "Man, I am glad these folks aren't real. If they were we would be doomed." I looked at the clock. "Hey, it's already midnight."

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